Last November, the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly known as COP26, took place amidst great uncertainty as the world finished out its second year of living with and struggling to adjust to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Having already been postponed for a year due to global shutdowns, the summit came together under great economic and ecological pressures and few clear visions for the future. Despite all obstacles, COP26 managed to put together an actionable agreement for furthering the global fight against climate change. Six months after the agreement was inked, the world has only gotten crazier – Russia invaded Ukraine, exacerbating a global energy crisis, inflation has kicked into overdrive around the world, and China has initiated a hare-brained policy with the impossible aim of eradicating Covid at the expense of its economy and social harmony.
So what has become of the hard-won COP26 agreement half a year later? The outlook is concerning, to say the least. The accelerating economic woes kickstarted by the pandemic and exacerbated by the Russian conflict in Ukraine (not to mention the resulting sanctions against the Kremlin) have largely pushed climate issues – and, indeed, long-term goals more generally – to the backburner as nations around the world are operating under a mentality of damage control and emergency measures.
One of the biggest issues discussed at COP26 was developed nations’ failure to deliver on their 2009 promise to provide the developing world with $100 billion per year in climate finance by 2020. While that deadline came and went without coming close to being met, the world’s richest countries recommitted to meeting this goal at COP26. Ahead of the summit, the UK’s government released a plan declaring confidence that this pledge would be met by 2023, but there is now concern that even this three-year-late deadline will be met. According to reporting from the Guardian, former top World Bank officials Rachel Kyte and Lord Stern expressed doubt about this bottom line, questioning whether the World Bank is genuinely committed to climate action and expressing that “the bank’s resources would be stretched by the additional strains of high energy and food prices around the world, and the effects of the war in Ukraine.”
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The Guardian also reports that it’s uncertain whether the private sector and energy investors are making good on their promises to invest in clean energies now that fossil fuel prices are through the roof, and whether policy mechanisms are sufficiently pushing them to do so. “Finance will not drive the net-zero transition on its own,” says UN climate envoy and former Bank of England governor Mark Carney. “Finance is an enabler, a catalyst that will speed what governments and companies initiate. If there is commitment to move to a sustainable, resilient and fair energy system, and the right policies are made, finance will be there.”
In fact, in the months since COP26, sky-high prices on natural gas, oil, and energy and fuel, in general, has pushed many countries back to the dirtiest fossil fuel of all. In a cruel irony, coal is having a renaissance in the wake of the COP26 international agreement to phase down coal in the immediate term. The agreement to phase down coal was already a point of contention at the summit and a huge disappointment for environmentalists. China and India refused to sign an agreement that included “phasing out” coal at the eleventh hour. But the spike in coal consumption due to the current energy crisis is a far cry from even phasing down. Coal production hit an all-time high in 2021 and is set to keep growing over the next few years, although some experts say this is an aberration in what will ultimately be a terminal decline for the high-emissions fuel source.
Other key COP26 platform items, including electric cars and forests, are also facing fresh challenges that are imperiling international pledges. Major supply chain issues stemming from the Russian conflict in Ukraine are threatening the electric car industry, although the sector doubled in several key markets last year. Pledges to end deforestation are also ringing empty – since COP 26 deforestation in the Amazon has continued to shatter previous records, and another one of the planet’s most important rainforests, located in the Congo, is also severely endangered as its government prioritizes the economic gains from logging.
Even if they are met in full, the agreement made at COP26 is not strong enough to change the world’s trajectory away from the worst effects of climate change. The current pathway sees the world falling far short of even those consolation gains. While the current context is especially unstable and there are legions of additional fires, the global community must learn to balance these crucial long-term ecological crises with the current social and economic ones.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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